“A jack of all trades and a master of one”: What is the ideal skill set to balance in a creative team?
When considering what kind of skill set makes most sense – whether generalist, specialist or even “T-shaped” – it appears the industry’s jury is still out on what’s best for personal growth and business.
The Creative Skills Report, by It’s Nice That in partnership with Adobe, is a reflection of the skills, needs and opinions of our industry. Gaining our insight by surveying a long list of studios, agencies and brands, we expand on one of the emerging themes we discovered. For even more insight into the creative skills currently vital to our industry, and what our teams may need in future, you can download the full Creative Skills Report here.
As a creative practitioner, whether to learn as many skills as possible or double down to become the very best at just one is an argument our industry seems to have been having since the dawn of time. Even most recently, in a survey we conducted to produce The Creative Skills Report, a reflection of the industry today as told to us by over 60 of Europe’s leading design studios, everyone still couldn’t agree.
The difficulty in answering this question seems to stem from the rapid and competitive speed our industry is currently running at. Deciding what skills to adopt or adapt to is often driven by this competitive edge and the need to win work. It makes sense, therefore, that the safest bet is to have a team which encompasses as many skills as possible. But does this leave too little room for craft? As one respondent to our survey put it: “Where do you prefer to buy meat? The butcher or the supermarket?” It’s a difficult career decision to make as an individual, and even more complicated if you’re a manager or team leader.
It turns out that it’s not a generalist or a specialist approach to creativity which seems best either; instead it’s the “T-shaped” approach. Describing a skill set that features a broad overview of an industry (the horizontal part of the T), and a deeper understanding of one subsection (the vertical part) to prop it up. In fact, this approach is so popular that 75 per cent of our respondents felt like it was the best way to future-proof your career as a creative, rather than to generalise or specialise.
“Our teams are made up of a range of thinkers”Design Studio
An example of a creative studio that describes itself as adopting a T-shaped skillset (“sort of”) is the London arm of global agency DesignStudio. Known for working with a host of household names – from British Airways to AirBnb, Deliveroo and Twitter – it’s the very nature of working in branding that meant a T-shaped approach developed naturally.
In conversation with DesignStudio London’s three creative directors Eric Ng, Campbell Butler and Alex Johns, the trio explain that, aside from skill, a DesignStudio hire is one that involves “looking for diversity of personal experience, which might accompany a particular skill set”. This means that the agency’s teams “are made up of a range of thinkers, with differing points of view and wildcard journeys through the creative industry, not just design”. As a result of this driving the hiring process, a diverse skill set and a range of cultural interests is a natural part of its team growth.
As mentioned, the agency’s focus on branding has also impacted its creative approach, “which in its definition is broad,” they point out. After all: “Brands touch multiple channels and audiences. Our team designs with these things in mind.” In order to achieve this, teams are purposefully built to diversify thought and the agency looks “at the make-up of the studio as a whole,” rather than at a group of creative craftspeople. It’s an approach that also makes way for certain benefits, particularly having a bird’s-eye view of the industry, leading the team of creative directors to believe that “broad skills and experiences in a range of areas make better designers and produces better work.”
That said, to execute some of these broader ideas, the agency regularly needs to engage with freelancers or partners for specialisms. However, in the view of Eric, Campbell and Alex: “This collaboration actually makes things more interesting, and means that we have a bespoke team with exactly the right skills for that particular job.” This network and approach is all part of DesignStudio working towards elevating “our business and ability”, and always by investing “in certain core specialisms, but individuals with a generalist outlook.”
Further along the generalist side of the spectrum is YuJune Park, partner and founder of Synoptic Office, a multi-disciplinary design studio working across design, technology and education. YuJune explains that she’d “loosely describe our team as being generalists, although we do have varying and complementary areas of expertise across interaction design, spatial graphics, and branding”. However, her justification for the generalist description is due to the studio’s approach, especially as “we don’t pigeon-hole ourselves, or our team, into doing one specific kind of work.”
Operating largely as communication designers, due to the wide possibilities of where Synoptic’s work might end up, variation is key. “If we each just burrow down into our area of expertise, it’s challenging to understand a project in its entirety,” YuJune points out. “It’s a bit like the blind man and the elephant. If you only work on the leg or the trunk, you risk missing the elephant.” This approach also aligns with the studio co-founder’s own belief that “skills are tenuous,” rightfully pointing out how: “The skills and software we are using now might be irrelevant in five years. However, the desire to learn how to learn, to see and ask questions will carry you through a lifetime of work.”
This approach has also developed from YuJune’s experience teaching, with both herself and co-founder Caspar Lam on the faculty at Parsons School of Design, “and this has shaped how we approach our design practice.” Looking at a brief as an inquisitive problem, the studio has therefore “always approached design as a method of inquiry”. This has encouraged the studio to follow a cycle with its making. Rather than always repeating the same task with the same skill, “we try to give equal weight to making, thinking, writing, and teaching, with each aspect continually informing the other.”
“We try to give equal weight to making, thinking, writing, and teaching”YuJune Park, Synoptic
The benefit, the team finds, is the wide swathe of opportunities to always learn something new, and meet new people in doing so. “We believe learning happens in community and in dialogue, with one another – inside and out,” YuJune explains. “For us, that type of dialogue is integral to figuring out what our culture is and what design is.”
An entirely different approach is chosen by John Ogunmuyiwa, who describes himself as a specialist – although there is a caveat to this title. Working as a creative copywriter at media agency Havas during the week, and as a film director and photographer to much acclaim in his evenings and weekends, he says: “I’d like to think of myself as a specialist in ideas.”
Although always interested in photography and film, it was during his A-Levels that John first toyed with the idea of going into advertising, when a career in taking photographs “didn’t really seem possible”. Finding that in fact this led him to receive “a general knowledge” course in creativity, John then ended up working as a copywriter and continuing to shoot on the side.
Now at Havas, he appears to be extremely busy but equally happy, describing how “the great thing about Havas is that they’re not in your ear,” he tells us. “There’s just a level of expectation for the work and when you make the level you’re free to your devices. You’re not skiving,” he adds, “but it gives wiggle room.” As a result John plans his own days (the morning we speak he’d been up since 6am writing for side projects before work), and his two creative jobs feed into one another “100 per cent,” he says. “It’s all ideas, isn’t it?”
Working in this way has led to John to feel that it’s good “to maybe have two parts to yourself” – and focus on those equally, creatively speaking. By having a side interest that is also creative but outside your 9-5 or main financial income, it can add a new perspective on your other way of working. Sometimes, “it helps to feed into the things that you’re doing,” he explains, “and it can give more clarity into whether the thing on the side is actually what you really want, or how much you might not like the field you’re currently working in.”
Offering this perspective John also points out that possibly, our survey’s reluctance to decide whether to be a generalist or specialist – and so more likely to pick the in the middle option of T-shaped – slightly comes from fear. “It’s a scary jump,” he points out, considering the possibility of settling on one of his creative careers full-time. Therefore, juggling the two is John trying to close that gap so it doesn’t feel as daunting. “Instead of jumping ten metres, you juggle a bit of the way, and it’s still a jump, but only two, or three metres.” This also leads the multi-hyphenate creative to believe that “you can be a jack of all trades and a master one” – if you give yourself and others the space to do so, that is.
This space also means that one can avoid the detrimental effects of specialising too young, and developing, as John puts it, “a mental block of not knowing you could do something else”. So even though he describes himself as a specialist, it’s by bouncing between these two specialisms that John seems able to thrive best.
It leads us to believe that the ideal skill set to balance in one creative team, no matter if you’re a specialist team at a brand, an independent studio or a global agency, is a range of individuals each willing to learn. This could be about your individual interest, whether it be typography, film or motion design, or the possibility of picking up something entirely different. Without this attitude towards skill sets, the opportunity of propelling yourself forward just gets smaller and smaller. As YuJune Park so rightfully points out, the process of being a creative (aside from what category you decide upon) is “a cyclical pattern, each building upon one another”.
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.